February’s Monthly History Milestone: Celebrating Black History Month

On Jan. 16, 1978, NASA announced that it had selected the first group of space shuttle astronauts; it was the agency’s first co-ed and multiracial astronaut class. Three African-American men, one Asian American man and six white women were included in the newest selection of 35 astronauts. In recognition of Black History Month, JSC celebrates the first three African-Americans to be named to the Astronaut Office: Guion S. Bluford, Frederick D. Gregory and Ronald E. McNair. Bluford came to Houston from the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, having just defended his doctorate in aerospace engineering from the Air Force Institute of Technology. Bluford, like many of his classmates, was a Vietnam veteran who had flown combat missions in Southeast Asia. He and McNair had been selected as mission specialists, scientists who would conduct scientific research in the orbiter and use the shuttle’s arm to capture satellites and maneuver EVA crew members. Gregory, the oldest of the three and only one named as a pilot astronaut, was a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy. He served as a rescue helicopter pilot in Vietnam. When he returned to the States, Gregory attended test pilot school at Patuxent River and eventually became a research test pilot at the Langley Research Center. At the time of the announcement he held a master’s degree in information systems from George Washington University. McNair had grown up poor in the segregated community of Lake City, South Carolina, where he also faced racial discrimination. He excelled in academics and became valedictorian of his high school class. In 1976, he earned a doctorate in physics from the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and upon graduation, Hughes Research Laboratories offered him a position at their lab in Malibu, California. All three men relocated to Texas and reported for duty in July 1978 to the Johnson Space Center.

Guion Bluford exercises on a treadmill device during his first flight.
Guion Bluford exercises on a treadmill device during his first flight.
In 1982, NASA released the names of the astronauts assigned to STS-7, 8 and 9. STS-7 included a female crew member, Sally K. Ride, and Bluford was one of four men assigned to the next flight, STS-8. In August 1983, he would become the first African-American in space. Five months later McNair flew onboard Challenger with a five-member crew. The highlight of STS-41B was the first use of the Manned Maneuvering Unit, a backpack unit allowing astronauts to fly free of the space shuttle in Earth orbit. Gregory, the last of the trio to fly, was assigned to STS-51B, a Spacelab mission. As he circled the Earth, Gregory’s global perspective evolved. “From space you can’t see discernible borders and you begin to question why people don’t like each other, because it looked like just one big neighborhood down there. The longer I was there,” he said, “the greater my [ideas about] ‘a citizen of’ changed.” Bluford completed a second mission sponsored by West Germany in the fall of 1985 known as D-1 (STS-61A), Challenger’s last successful flight.

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Astronaut Ronald McNair stows his gear as he and STS-41B crewmate Robert Stewart prepare for reentry.
Challenger and the crew of STS-51L, which included McNair, were lost just a few months later, on Jan. 28, 1986. Gregory, then sitting at the CapCom console in Mission Control, watched the tragedy unfold and spent the next few days protecting the astronaut families from the media. Bluford dedicated himself to ensuring that future crews would fly in a safer spacecraft. Crews passed along mock “keys” for each orbiter, and 61A had not had a chance to present the Challenger key to 51L before the launch. “After the accident,” Bluford later recalled, “I continued to display the Challenger key in my office as a reminder to all that flying in space was dangerous and that we needed to be vigilant if we were going to pursue this profession safely.”

Frederick Gregory participates in AsCan training in Building 9.
Frederick Gregory participates in AsCan training in Building 9.
Bluford and Gregory went on to fly two additional shuttle missions each. Gregory moved from JSC to NASA Headquarters in 1992, where he served as the Associate Administrator for the Office of Safety and Mission Assurance for nine years, Associate Administrator for the Office of Space Flight and finally as NASA Deputy Administrator from 2002-2005. He resigned in the fall of 2005, just a few months after the flight of STS-114, the return to flight following the Columbia accident. Bluford left NASA in 1993 to work for private industry. To read more about the careers and experiences of these remarkable astronauts, including NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, who was selected in the 1980 astronaut class, visit the JSC Oral History Project homepage at: http://www.jsc.nasa.gov/history/oral_histories/oral_histories.htm A selection of excerpts from interviews and links to the oral history interviews conducted with some of the African-Americans who contributed to NASA’s history can be found on the JSC History Portal: http://www.jsc.nasa.gov/history/special_events/BHM.htm.

Jennifer Ross-Nazzal
Johnson Space Center, Houston

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Updated: 02/17/2012